George Eliot described her short story “Brother Jacob” (written in 1860, published in the Cornhill 1864) as a “slight tale.” “Brother Jacob,” a story about deception, imperial venture, and self-interest, was the first piece written after her true identity had been disclosed to the public and one of only two independent short stories by the famous novelist.
The story is a fable, written with a satiric tone. Eliot portrays the unashamed, brazen David Faux as he plots to steal his small inheritance from his mother’s room and travel to the West Indies. His plan is foiled by his “idiot” brother Jacob, who catches him in the act. After failing to distract and pacify Jacob with candy from the confectioner’s shop at which he was an apprentice, David allows Jacob to follow him, only to leave him asleep on a stagecoach. David fails to make a fortune in the Indies, and the tale is picked up years later in the market town of Grimworth, where David (now Edward Freely) has set up a pastry and confection shop. The women at Grimworth, while at first snubbing the shop on the principle that no respectable (or self-respecting) woman would purchase cakes when she could make her own, succumb to the attractive products and become enamored with both Freely and his goods. Freely/Faux is eventually uncovered by the return of Jacob, who recognizes his “brother Davy,” and the townspeople reaffirm the threat to domestic harmony and social rank David presented.
Sugar and its consumption contribute much of the rich symbolic material in the story. As Susan de Sola Rodstein notes, “sugar—in the middle decades of the 19th century in England, was the locus of intense moral and economic debate over slavery, emancipation, free trade, and social definition” (295). David, at first a confectioners’ apprentice, later represents the imperial adventurer who seeks a fortune first in the West Indies and then in a quiet market town, all through the slave-produced commodity sugar. Indeed, David at some level enslaves his brother Jacob, the women of Grimsworth, and even his potential wife “Penny Palfrey” through the sweets he produces and the “sweet” self-image he projects; Eliot describes this as “gradual corruption.” Eliot’s tale explicitly links sugar with the imperialist mind-set, so that we come to see that Freely’s goods are not the airy, harmless substances we might believe we are consuming.
Eliot’s fable—a perfectly dramatized exaggeration of human greed and its influence—also emphasizes the way Edward Freely’s capitalist venture destroys communal and familial bonds. As Richard Mallen explains, the fable is about “the triumph of small-town virtue over a corrupting capitalism and democratic leveling. It is also a tale about the triumph of an explicit, authoritarian trust over an implicit, free-market trust” (50). Jacob, in his insatiable appetite for David’s sugar products, demonstrates the “idiocy” of a Victorian public that enables such capitalists to dupe the consumer. However, Eliot does award Jacob the ability to “uncover” the secret of Freely’s enterprise and identity, symbolically uncovering the British national’s participation in the slave trade of sugar and the public’s eager support.
Social class in Grimworth is resolutely upheld, causing the suspicion leveled at the stranger Freely upon his arrival. As his “place in the scale of rank had not been distinctly ascertained,” he challenges the aristocratic code of class and profession with his unknown origin and his trade. The fable refutes this challenge, yet not with an unblemished return to order. Readers now see the greed and imperialist ties that lie within Britain, as Jacob, David, and the Grimworth residents each enjoy the sugar (and the other commodities it represents) even though such sweets might lead relationships and integrity to rot and decay.
de Sola Rodstein, Susan. “Sweetness and Dark: George Eliot’s “Brother Jacob,” Modern Language Quarterly 52 (1991): 295–317.
Eliot, George. The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob. London: Penguin, 2001.
Mallen, Richard D. “George Eliot and the Precious Mettle of Trust,” Victorian Studies 44, no. 1 (2001): 41–75.